Hiromi Kawakami: 先生の鞄 (US: The Briefcase; UK: Strange Weather in Tokyo)
The Japanese title translates more or less as Sensei of the Briefcase, so the US title reflects the Japanese more accurately. I am not quite clear about the UK title (thought here is a brief period when the weather is indeed strange in Tokyo –This strange weather must be a result of the strange thing you said, Tsukiko) but then publishers do strange things with titles. The story is narrated by Tsukiko Omachi, a thirty-seven year old Japanese woman, who is something of a loner. She is not married and does not have a boyfriend or even any real friend. She rarely visits her family (I just couldn’t bear going back home to the boisterous house where my mother lived with my older brother and his wife and kids.) She tends to go to bars to have a drink and something to eat (something which is apparently not all that common for women in Japan). One day, while in such a bar, a man starts to speak to her. She recognises him as her high school Japanese teacher, though cannot remember his name, not least because she did not enjoy Japanese. As a result, she addresses him as Sensei (a Japanese term used to address a teacher). They start chatting. He is nearly thirty years older than her and no longer with his wife. It is not clear whether he is a widower or divorced, though both Tsukiko and we as readers assume that he is a widower. It turns out to be more complicated than that. They have a drink together.
Over the coming months, they will continue to meet, not by arrangement, but by meeting one another in bars by chance, usually the same one where they first met. They seem to share a taste in food and drink (saké); they enjoy chatting together. He invites her to his house, which seems to be in a state of disorder, primarily because, as he admits, he is reluctant to throw anything away. For example, he seems to have amassed a certain number of railway teapots (ceramic teapots provided when you order tea on a train, though now plastic). He is adamant that he is not a collector. They do things together. As well as eating and drinking, they go to the market together (where they eat and drink) where Harutsuna Matsumoto (the teacher’s name) buys a pair of chicks, though he is not sure why. Here, as always, he carries with him his briefcase.
There seems to be no romantic or sexual liaison. They remain merely friends. They even have a row, resulting in both of them going to the same bar but rigorously ignoring the other. The row is over the Giants, a Japanese baseball team which people love to love or love to hate, as with the Yankees in the US or Manchester United in the UK. He loves the Giants; she hates them. However, they eventually make up and life carries on as before. The bar owner, at the bar they usually go to, Satoru, invites them to go mushroom picking. Harutsuna is very keen on mushrooms, so off they go with the bar owner and his cousin, Toru, hunting mushrooms. Harutsuna has a field guide to mushrooms, which was his wife’s – she was very keen on mushroom hunting and hiking and once nearly killed herself eating a poisonous mushroom. They eat all the mushrooms they find and though Harutsuna warns them of one or two, there are no ill effects.
Their relationship continues. Harutsuna says that they have a karmic connection. One day he invites her to the cherry blossom festival at the old school. She accepts but plans not to go. However, when he unusually turns up at her flat, she goes. There she meets Takashi Kojima, a former fellow-student whom she once (very briefly) dated and who is now divorced. He is interested in her and tries to resume the relationship. In the meantime, Harutsuna meets Ms Ishino, the art teacher. Tsukiko leaves with Takashi Kojima and Harutsuna with Ms Ishino. For a long time the two do not meet. She wants to avoid him in order to forget him. But then there is the karmic connection.
Kawakami tells a very clever story of an unusual relationship, that between a man and a woman thirty years his junior, where there seems to be no romantic intent on either side and leaves us guessing which way it is going to go until the end. In some respects the pair do behave like lovers, in that they have one or two disagreements, have things in common (their love of food and drink, in particular) and seem to understand one another. Yet, for the most part, they rely on chance encounters, albeit with the chances reduced by generally going to the same bar. Both seem to be loners, with few friends and limited family connections. He treats her to some degree as the younger person that she is, sometimes berating her for her ignorance of both Japanese literature and language. She continues to call him Sensei. Both seem to be somewhat untidy and disordered. Yet, the story works very well as we cannot help but being both bemused by it, both its existence and where it is going, as well as somewhat charmed by it, by the fact that something like it, relatively unusual, sort of works.
First published in 2001 by Heibonsha
First English translation by Counterpoint in 2012